Truth

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho.

John 18:28-40

As our story last week ended, right before this passage begins, the cock crowed, reminding Peter of his three denials of Jesus. A rooster crow also indicates morning, which means light is starting to dawn. For John’s gospel, Jesus is the light, and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

This light is dawning onto a weary world, however. A world of political intrigue and gamesmanship. The religious leaders are staying ritually pure by not going into Pilate’s office, so they can celebrate Passover. For John, this illustrates the worst use of religion. Having clean hands but dirty hearts is not the goal of religious observance.

As you’ll recall, the feast of Passover is where God’s people celebrated their deliverance from Pharaoh. Specifically, the night when the lamb was slaughtered, and its blood put on the doorposts of the Jewish houses, so the angel of death might pass over their houses as the first born children of the Egyptians died.

So they are keeping their hands “clean” as they do the “dirty” work of offering the Lamb of God to the Romans. “We are not permitted to put anyone to death”, they tell Pilate, and the unspoken words are “but we’d love it if you would, so that our consciences will be clear and this meddler will be gone.

They are an easy target in this story, because the contrast between their religious practice and their other actions is so glaring. I recognize myself in them though, every time I remain silent while injustice takes place in the proverbial next room. We are people who hope that going through the motions, and keeping some sort of distance from the dirty work, will be some sort of excuse for our inaction.

Pilate feels like an oddly sympathetic, or at least a bumbling sort of character here. He doesn’t seem to want to get caught up in someone else’s politics, but he also shuttles himself back and forth between the two groups, as if he’s a servant for this bad bit of theater. The religious leaders don’t answer his questions:

‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’
They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ 

Jesus isn’t much better in the direct answering business:
‘Are you the King of the Jews?’
Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’

No wonder Pilate asks “What is truth”? He wants to know the truth of Jesus’ alleged crime. He wants to know what, exactly, Jesus did to piss off his own people so badly that they handed him over to the Romans. He wants to know if Jesus sees himself as a “king” and if he’s a threat to Roman political stability.

There’s a lot of “truth” that is slipping through his fingers in this story.

What is truth?

truth

In Greek, the word truth, occurs once in Matthew and three times each in Mark and Luke. Truth appears 25 times in John’s gospel. It doesn’t mean Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t care about Truth. They do. It means it is an important word for John to understand who Jesus is.

What is truth?

I’m sure the issue of Truth is pertinent at any time in our history. It seems really pertinent today. When things are labeled “fake news” and when we choose our news sources based on how much we agree with the conclusions reached by that source—we are constantly needing to ask ‘what is truth?’

A team of researchers at MIT tracked falsehoods and truths using a database of every tweet written from 2006 to 2017…. By almost all metrics, false cascades outpaced true ones. Even the farthest-reaching true rumors rarely spread to more than 1,000 people. But the top 1 percent of falsehoods routinely had audiences of 1,000 to 100,000 people, the study authors reported. Politics got the most attention among true and false rumors, they discovered, representing 45,000 of the 126,000 cascades. False political rumors had a particularly high peak during the 2016 election.”

Twitter officials, somewhat like Pilate, said they are not the arbiters of truth, that they can’t police Twitter for fake news stories.

We all need to be more digitally literate, to look at dates, and website addresses, etc, and to consider the sources from whom we seek truth. Because the reality is that there is not one person or source who can definitively tell you “this is truth”.

Lots of people want to fill that role for us. Pastors, politicians, news commentators, teachers, parents, internet trolls—so many options. Ultimately, each of us has to figure out how to discern the truth.

It’s an odd situation in which we find ourselves. In our culture right now, the idea of each individual as the arbiter or their own truth is not working so well for us.
There are people who loudly proclaim that the earth is flat, even though it is not.
There are people who say the holocaust never happened,
or that the Sandy Hook shooting was faked, that none of those children who died were real children.

Elliott likes to read obscure conspiracy theories, so I asked him for some of the “best”.
Did you know, Finland isn’t a real country? It’s just a place where Russians and Japanese fish?
“The main players in the conspiracy are Russia and Japan, and to start, we must go back to 1918 when Finland first got its independence from Russia. The notion goes that the two nations created Finland so that Japan could fish the sea that truly exists there without any environmental complaints or repercussions. The fish that are caught are then shipped via the Trans-Siberian railway (the real reason it was built by the way) “from the Eastern Russian coast to Japan under the disguise of ‘Nokia’ products.”

I mean, is there anyone here tonight from Finland? I didn’t think so.

Another conspiracy subject is that the Denver airport is the headquarters of the illuminati.

If you’re wanting to be distracted while writing a sermon or working on your taxes or something, there are lots of them out there. Paul McCartney died in 1966. Elvis is still alive. The moon landings were faked.

We want to dismiss them as kooky conspiracy theories we can joke about, but they have infiltrated all facets in our society. And they claim they speak truth.

What is truth?, Pilate asks.

Maybe the better question is “who is truth?” Jesus answers that question earlier in the book. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the father except through me.” Which is a nice saying. It also is ambiguous enough to lead people to interpret it in many different ways.

Some people hear those words of Jesus and then decide if you are in another religion, or even if you’re Christian don’t believe in Jesus the same way they do, that you’re going to hell.

I hear those words and think there are lots of different ways Jesus can help people come to the Father. Jesus is the answer for me, but other people may have different questions. I trust the diversity of the world is not an accident, and if God wants to reveal Godself in many different ways, I trust God is perfectly equipped to handle the rest of the cosmos’ salvation without my help.

Even Jesus as truth is complicated.

In this story in John’s gospel, the crowds choose a bandit over the truth, bringing back, yet again, that imagery of John 10 with the sheep, the thieves and the bandits. The sheep in Pilate’s courtyard do not recognize the Shepherd’s voice. “Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to my voice”, Jesus says.

Jesus is our truth, (and the way, and the life), and so we come together to discern the truth, and to listen for his voice, and to figure out how our lives can reflect his life and his light to the world.

For me, at least, I want to continue asking the questions, and seeking the truth, but with less emphasis on coming up with only one answer. Maybe the truth lies in our willingness to say “I don’t know”. Maybe we’ll find the truth more easily if we stop pretending we’re the only ones in possession of it.

Jesus as Truth is not a list of “right” behaviors—because Jesus hung out with pretty much all of the people on the list of “wrong” behaviors. Jesus as Truth is bigger than our human morality, right, wrong, good, bad.

Jesus as Truth calls us to hold on loosely to the idea that we have it figured out, and to hold on tightly to the knowledge that God does. And so Pilate, and Caiaphas, and all of the possible outcomes to this “trial” of Jesus are a sideshow to the Truth of Jesus that is revealed in this story. What could any of those actors in this story have done to diminish Jesus, to limit his truth, to keep him from loving his own right up to the very end?
Nothing.

There is nothing any of them could have done to stop the Truth of his Love for the world.
When we get distracted by controlling the truth, or fighting over the truth, or denying the truth—we forget that we aren’t the truth. Jesus is the truth. We are people who listen for his voice, for a voice of truth.

Mary Oliver, in the poem, In Blackwater Woods, says:

“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.

Those three things—to love what is mortal, to hold it knowing our lives are connected, and to let that love go—those things seem true to me. If we can live like that, I trust we will hear the voice of our Shepherd, the voice of truth.

We can’t put truth in an easily quantifiable container, but even though we get distracted by things, deep down, we know truth when we see it, right?

A friend reminded me of this scene from the movie The Dark Knight, an excellent Batman film. (If you don’t want to watch the clip, there’s a description below it).

Towards the end of the movie, the Joker (hauntingly played by the late Heath Ledger) shuts off the power to two ferry boats filled with people who are fleeing the city, effectively trapping them out on the open water. On one of the ferries: a group of Gotham City’s most upstanding (and affluent) citizens. On the other: a group of prison inmates.

The Joker hijacks the intercom and announces that both ships have been rigged with explosives. “Enough to blow you all sky high,” he says.

“Tonight, you’re all going to be part of a social experiment.” The Joker reveals that each group has been given the detonator to the other boat’s ship. “Anyone attempts to get off your boat, you all die. Each of you has a remote to blow up the other boat. At midnight, I blow you all up. If, however, one of you presses the button, I’ll let that boat live. So, who’s it going to be? [Gotham City’s] most wanted scum bag[s]…or the sweet and innocent civilians? You choose. Oh, and you might want to decide quickly,” he says, “because the people on the other boat might not be quite so noble.”

It isn’t too long before the civilians on the first boat start feeling a little twitchy. One of the onboard military personnel asks everyone to stay back. “Well, now who are you to decide?” asks one wealthy man on the boat, “we ought to talk this over at least.”

“We shouldn’t all have to die,” another woman chimes in, “those men had their chance.”
“We are not going to talk about this,” the soldier says.
“Why aren’t we talking about it?” “They’re talking about the exact same thing on the other boat.”

Just before total panic and chaos takes over, one person says, “Let’s put it to a vote.” The civilians are asked to write down their vote on a piece of paper and place them in a hat to be tallied up. After several minutes, the final tally is 140 against, 396 for. As the captain stands holding the detonator, a passenger says, “So, go ahead. Do it.”

The captain looks up at the clock on the wall. “We’re still here. That means they haven’t killed us yet either.”

The man who spoke first looks up at the clock. Only minutes left. “No one wants to get their hands dirty. Fine,” he says, “I’ll do it. Those men on that boat, they made their choices. They chose to murder and steal. It doesn’t make any sense for us to have to die, too.” He takes the detonator.

Meanwhile back on the other ship, one of the convicts (an enormous black man) approaches the captain. “You don’t want to die,” he says eyeing the detonator, “but you don’t know how to take a life. Give it to me…you can tell them I took it by force. Give it to me, and I’ll do what you shoulda did ten minutes ago.” Painfully, the captain hands it to him, and without a moment’s hesitation, the convict tosses it out the window. He then joins the other inmates on the other side of the ship who are praying together.

Back in his hideout, the Joker watches the two ships as the moment of truth arrives. “And here we go,” he says. The affluent man places his fingers on the detonator. As he looks down at the device, and at his own hands, we see the look of contempt start to crack and is replaced with deep sadness. He slowly places the detonator back inside the box and joins the other civilians filled with shame. Both of the ferries are still alive. Furious, the Joker grabs his own detonator to blow up both of the ships…that is, until Batman shows up to save the day.

The people on the boats wrestled for the Truth. And I’d argue they found it.

“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
go,
to let it go.”

May we seek the Way, the Truth, the Life. Amen.

 

(Thanks to Marc Van Bulck for the idea of the Dark Knight scene).

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3 thoughts on “Truth

  1. Pingback: Behold your King, Behold your self | Glass Overflowing

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